Attorney General Prohibits Women of the Wall's Priestly Blessing Ceremony at Western Wall

Avichai Mendelblit held a meeting on the subject with police officers, prosecutors, the legal adviser of the Religious Services Ministry and the rabbi of the Western Wall, Shmuel Rabinowitz.

Daniel Shitrit

Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit prohibited Women of the Wall from holding a female version of the priestly blessing ceremony at the Western Wall during Passover, which starts Friday evening.

According to Mendelblit's decision, the ceremony, which has no precedent, is forbidden in accordance with the protection of holy places, prohibiting prayer among other activities at holy sites that do not adhere to "local customs."

Mendelblit held a meeting on the subject Thursday with police officers, prosecutors, the legal adviser of the Religious Services Ministry and the rabbi of the Western Wall, Shmuel Rabinowitz. The latter two opposed permitting the ceremony. It was decided during the meeting that the Ministry of Religious Services would invite Women of the Wall representatives to make their case and voice their concerns in a meeting later Thursday. However, Women of the Wall do not plan to state their case at this time.

In response, Women of the Wall said it did not believe the attorney general’s decision had legal basis but had decided nonetheless to cancel the controversial priestly blessing ceremony for women scheduled for Sunday morning.

The group said in a statement that it would convene, though, as planned and hold prayer service at the Western Wall, without the addition of the priestly blessing.

“It is infuriating that the decision was given to us at the last moment, without the benefit of hearing our side before making it, as required by Israeli administrative law,” said attorney Riki Shapira, a Women of the Wall board member. “Also, the decision was made too late for us to appeal it to the Supreme Court.”

Women of the Wall chairwoman Anat Hoffman expressed dismay that the decision was taken with consultation with her group. "This is a sad decision that submits to political pressure of an extremist minority group whose sole aim is to sabotage gender equality at the Western Wall and prevent women from having the right of prayer and worship,” she said. “It’s surprising that at a time like this, when there is such a need for prayer and blessing in Israel that the attorney general shows support for the delegitimization of a prayer for those women whose only wish is to bless and be blessed.”

Hoffman noted that her group was informed, in wake of the decision, that the Jerusalem police planned to prevent buses it had chartered to bring women from around the country to the event from approaching the Old City gates. “This will make it even harder for women to come and pray at the Kotel,” she said. 

Expressing disappointment with the attorney general’s decision, the Reform movement in Israel criticized Mendelblit for playing into the hands of extremists bent on undermining a government plan to create a special prayer space by the Western Wall where non-Orthodox Jews could hold mixed prayer services.

“The attorney general’s decision is a prize for extremists,” said Rabbi Gilad Kariv, the executive director of the movement in Israel. “It maintains the status of the Western Wall as an ultra-Orthodox synagogue.”

According to Kariv, the decision had one positive aspect: its implicit recognition of the rights of women to read from the Torah and to wear prayer shawls when praying in the women’s section of the Western Wall. “In light of this, we call on the attorney general to instruct the Western Wall rabbi to make Torah scrolls available to Women of the Wall when they hold their service there on Sunday,” said Kariv.

The Western Wall rabbi has refused all requests from Women of the Wall to provide the group with Torah scrolls for readings in the women’s section. Worshippers at the Jewish holy site are prohibited from bringing their own Torah scrolls in.

On Wednesday, the High Court of Justice summarily rejected a petition against the ceremony by B’Tzedek, saying the organization filed it belatedly and without appealing to the police first. B’Tzedek responded by urging the public to protest if Women of the Wall holds the ceremony this Sunday.

Mati Dan, who heads the Ateret Cohanim organization in the Old City’s Muslim Quarter, told Haaretz that his group might also organize protests if the ceremony goes ahead. “This is the nation’s central synagogue, and people must act with respect for religious values there,” he said. “This ceremony is meant to degrade and provoke.”

Though Women of the Wall has been meeting once a month to read the Torah at the Wall for years, this is the first time it has sought to conduct a priestly blessing ceremony. Orthodox religious law holds that this ceremony, which is held every Passover and Sukkot, can be conducted only by men.

The legal issue Mendelblit had to decide on is whether a female version of the ceremony – which isn’t standard practice even in the Reform and Conservative movements – constitutes accepted practice at the Wall. If not, he can legally forbid it. He also had to weigh the police’s assessment of whether the ceremony could spark riots, which would also be grounds for barring it.